Monday 19 March 2018

Comparing BMD indexes for England and Wales: Ancestry

There are separate databases for:

England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1837-1915 (free index)
England & Wales, Civil Registration Birth Index, 1916-2005
England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915 (free index)
England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1837-1915 (free index)
England & Wales, Civil Registration Marriage Index, 1916-2005

There is another database ‘England and Wales, Death Index, 2007-2015’, but this does not come from GRO data.

The six databases can be searched individually, and there is an option to search all of the above databases at once, called ‘England and Wales, Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, 1837-2005’ For some odd reason this category also includes six databases of church records from Derbyshire, Somerset and Wiltshire, and the search fields seem more suited to parish register searching.

The wider category ‘Birth, Marriage & Death, including Parish’ includes all of the above, plus more than 300 related collections such as church registers and probate calendars and obituaries, from all parts of the British Isles. However, even the ‘one size fits all’ search screen for this category has a lot of options for refining a search. No category is mandatory, and each field can be set to ‘exact’ or a variety of flexible options. 

Search options

When searching a single database you can select ‘Exact’ for any search field, which enables the use of wild cards * at any point in the word. An ‘Exact’ search in the forename field will return all the results where that name appears, even as a middle name - so a search for Mary will return results for Mary Ann, but there seems to be no way to confine the search to Mary without any other forenames. Leaving the ‘Exact’  box unticked for a name field searched using name variants, which can be useful, but there is no way of knowing which variants have been included or excluded.

You can select an exact year, or up to + or - 10 years. There is a drop-down menu for the month - although the results are always in quarters up to 1983. If you select January, February or March you will get results for the March quarter, and so on. The place search options are less helpful; there is just the standard Ancestry place option, which auto-fills to places in its worldwide database. This does not include a number of registration districts, and even when override this by typing the exact name of one of these ‘missing’ districts it returns no results. This is likely to happen with a district name which is not also the name of a parish or town within it; for example, ’Medway’ will return no results, but ‘Medway, Kent’ will return results from every district in Kent.

Search results

When searching across multiple databases, there are two ways of viewing the results; the ‘Records’ tab lists all of the individual results from all the categories, and the ‘Categories’ tab shows a list of the databases with results, and the number of results in each. 

The results within each database come in chronological order by year (not by quarter) and alphabetically within each year. They show the name, registration district and a county (which does not appear in the original index, and is not always accurate) You can also view an image of the original index page. Each result also has a shopping cart symbol where you can order a copy of the certificate, but this is NOT RECOMMENDED because it costs more than twice as much as ordering direct from the GRO, and will take longer.

The layout of the results varies a little between the various databases, but have similar features, and if you click on ‘View record’ against a particular entry, you will see them all. These include a full transcription of the entry and a link to the original index page (up to 1983). Results from the marriage indexes 1837-1915 include the all the names with the same volume and page reference, to help you identify likely spouses.

If you search the birth indexes by surname, but without a forename, the results from 1911 onwards include entries under other surnames, but where the surname you are searching is the mother’s maiden name. There is no way of searching by mother’s maiden name only in the 1837-1915 birth indexes, but the search options for the 1916-2007 database includes a ‘Mother’ field, for the mother’s maiden name. 

The original paper version of the marriage indexes from 1912 include the surname of the spouse, but the Ancestry results helpfully include the full name of the spouse. 

Death indexes include an age at death from 1866, which in the Ancestry results appears as an estimated year of birth eg ‘abt 1840’ but ‘View record’ shows the age as it appears in the paper index. Results 1837-1915 appear in chronological order, which may not be obvious at first, because it is in order of estimated year of birth, except where the age at death does not appear in the indexes, in which case the year of death is used instead, in practice for results from 1837 to 1865. 

There is no way to re-sort or download search results, although you can choose how many to show at a time, 10, 20 or 50. You can also widen your search to other sets of databases without re-entering the search data. This can be useful where a result from another category helps you identify the right entry - for example a probate calendar entry for a death, or the parish register copy for a marriage.

Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers 

All of the 1837-1915 indexes include a feature which could have been brilliant, but sadly, has been badly executed.
Extract from the Kent parish map
The full record includes a hyperlink ‘View Ecclesiastical Parishes associated with this Registration District’ which takes you to a list of parishes, based on information extracted from the excellent Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers. Against each parish is a link to the Atlas’s map for that county, and a simple grid reference to locate the parish within the map, eg 5G, 3A etc. If you look at these maps in the book version of the Atlas you will see that the county maps aren’t overlaid with an actual grid, but have letters and numbers in the margin, which works very well as a visual guide, without cluttering the map with extra lines. The Ancestry parish lists have painstakingly included all these references, but unfortunately, the numbers and letters have been cropped from the images of maps, so you have to guess where they might have been. Oops!

There are some transcription errors, but a much bigger problem is the way that the parishes are listed in their registration districts; if the name of the district contains more than one word, the list will show all the parishes in districts which contain any of those words. So the link for the registration district of St George in the East goes to a list of parishes in districts all over the country, including St Martin in the Fields, Newcastle in Emlyn, Stow on the Wold, and Bury St Edmunds, to name but a few. 

Browse options

The search options and the way the results are presented leave much to be desired, but on the plus side, it is very easy to browse the original index pages. The main search page for each database has a browse option on the right-hand side where you select a year, a quarter, and then an initial letter; so you can reproduce the experience of using the old born index volumes, but without the heavy lifting.

The links to the Phillimore Atlas maps are not very helpful in this context, but they do contain a lot of useful information, and you can browse the map images, either by following the links from your search results, of from the Atlas’s own landing page. 


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